Thursday was the kind of day that many Beltway reporters have spent four years dreaming about: Democrats and Republicans came together to tell Donald Trump that he had gone too far.
The bipartisan rebuke came in response to the president declining to commit to a “peaceful transition” following November’s election. “We’re going to have to see what happens,” Trump said, spinning his wheels. “Get rid of the ballots and you’ll, we’ll have a very peaceful—there won’t be a transfer frankly. There will be a continuation.” To the extent there even was subtext, it was this: If Trump wins, the election is legitimate; if he doesn’t, it’s not. Even more chilling was the fact that violence was apparently on the table.
Democrats began ringing the alarm bells immediately. And they were joined by dozens of prominent Republicans. “The winner of the November 3rd election will be inaugurated on January 20th,” tweeted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792.” Senator John Thune concurred, telling reporters, “Republicans believe in the rule of law and we believe in the Constitution. And that’s what dictates our election process.”
The GOP’s rebuke was gentle—the president mostly went unnamed in these criticisms—but the press ate it up. “Senate Republicans opposed President Trump’s assertion that he might reject a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the November election, trying to deflect his challenge to a foundation of American democracy as bravado that will not actually occur,” wrote The Washington Post’s Paul Kane and Rachel Bade. The Hill’s Alexander Bolton noted that Republicans on the Hill were “left dumbfounded” by the president’s words. It took five New York Times reporters to explain that Republicans were “trying to reassure the public about the electoral system while withholding personal criticism of the president, a balancing act that shows their political codependence.”
Republicans might be treading lightly, but the message was clear: Trump had crossed a red line.
But upon a closer read, a much different message emerges. Trump’s refusal to disavow violence, to be fair, was universally condemned. But every other crooked method of winning—involving legal challenges to a freshly stacked Supreme Court—is on the table. They weren’t drawing a red line as much as they were sending a secret code: There are quieter ways to get what you want, just stop acting like Mussolini. It’s one lesson that Washington reporters keep refusing to learn: Senate Republicans are not going to stand up to the president.
Republicans rebuked Trump on only one point: The 2020 election will not result in a civil war. Reporters have been content with this answer, but it’s far from satisfactory. Trump trying to steal the election by inciting armed conflict is faintly possible. It is much more likely, however, that he and Republicans use a series of quasi-legal maneuvers to “legitimately” hold onto power—disallowing mail ballots in swing states, for instance, or challenging the election all the way to a Supreme Court. Trump has hardly been shy about the fact that he expects Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s successor to do his bidding. In other words, Republican elected officials don’t have to do any of the skulduggery: That’s what the courts and lawyers are for.
In their rebukes of the president, Republicans were very careful to leave room for this reelection path. McConnell’s curiously specific mention of the “November 3rd election,” as Jamelle Bouie pointed out on Twitter, is disturbing given the likelihood that every ballot won’t be counted until well after that date—and that Trump appears to have an advantage with voters who have said they will vote on Election Day rather than casting a mail-in ballot. Should Trump hold onto power through a series of legal stratagems designed to make a conservative Supreme Court, rather than the American people, decide the next president, Republicans are perfectly fine with that. “If Republicans lose we will accept the result. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Joe Biden, I will accept that result,” Lindsey Graham told Fox & Friends, knowing full well the court is tilted in Trump’s favor.
The Trump campaign, moreover, is perfectly clear on how it envisions Trump holding onto power—and it’s not by inciting violence. “Trump’s state and national legal teams are already laying the groundwork for post-election maneuvers that would circumvent the results of the vote count in battleground states,” reported Barton Gellman in The Atlantic earlier this week. “Ambiguities in the Constitution and logic bombs in the Electoral Count Act make it possible to extend the dispute all the way to Inauguration Day, which would bring the nation to a precipice.”
Senate Republicans have left plenty of room for the Trump campaign to steal the election via other means—challenging vote counts, making it harder to vote by mail, disrupting early voting. What Trump and Republicans are banking on is Bush v. Gore on steroids—legal challenges in multiple states that ensure they hold the White House.
But reporters were more than content to unthinkingly accept at face value statements whose actual purpose is to obscure this reality. As a result, Republicans were given the kind of kumbaya moment they crave—Democrats and Republicans coming together in defense of the rule of law, democratic norms, and peaceful transitions, practically scripted by Aaron Sorkin. The period after the election might be peaceful, but there’s no reason to believe Republicans will do anything but try to keep Trump in office.